The Washington Court of Appeals agreed to temporarily block the release of names and other information about Cowlitz County’s roughly 570 level 1 sex offenders this month, granting a victory to the so-called ‘John Doe’ offenders who sued last year to block the records’ release.
The action will give the court time to further consider the case and possibly hear oral arguments about whether the records should be blocked permanently or made public. That means the issue may not be resolved for months.
For now, the ruling means the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s office must “hold the records until further action from the court,” Cowlitz Civil Prosecutor Dana Gigler said Wednesday.
Kelso resident Curtis Hart requested them in August. The appellate court could now allow the John Does to argue that the records should not be released, said Joshua Baldwin, a local attorney representing the John Does.
In court documents, Baldwin argued that the following “debatable issues” warranted review by the court: the potential harms to “effective law enforcement” or the privacy rights of the sex offenders if the records are released to Hart, and what Hart intends to do with the records if he gets them.
Baldwin said Wednesday that he’s ultimately hoping “that the release of the records is prohibited by law.”
Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning ruled in October the records should be released, but he delayed his own decision to let attorneys appeal the case to the Court of Appeals.
The case pits the public’s right to know against the offenders’ right to privacy. Records of each offender are public, but Hart is seeking the county’s databases, which sheriff’s offices across the state do not publish for level 1 offenders. Level 1 offenders are considered the least likely to reoffend, and some of them contend that disclosing their names will subject them to harassment, job loss, violence and other calamities.
The appeals court has a number of options. It could uphold Warning’s original decision and give Hart the records. It could reverse his decision and find an exemption under the law from releasing the records to Hart. Or it could send the case back to Warning for further consideration.
Hart himself is a controversial figure who has conducted several “To Catch a Predator” style stings of would-be sex offenders, leading to charges against three men. Judge Warning found in November that Hart is likely to “misuse the information in childish, immature, and offensive ways that would likely be harmful to (the registered offenders),” but those concerns did not justify withholding public information.
Hart has said he does not endorse violence against the sex offenders and only intends to publish their names to inform people living in the county. He said over Facebook messenger Wednesday that even if he received an incomplete list, he would still check it against a similar list of offenders obtained by Donna Zink, a Franklin County woman who previously obtained the names of all 21,000 Level 1 sex offenders across Washington state.
The information Hart requested would go beyond Zink’s list and include birth dates, home addresses, photographs, and brief descriptions of crimes.
“I think it’s a bunch of malarkey,” Hart said of the appellate court’s decision Wednesday. “Unless they are going to change the entire law I’ll get them eventually. Either from the court or from one of the many people that also made the request.”
The Cowlitz Sheriff’s Office has taken a neutral position on the release of the records. When the requests for injunction were first filed, the agency did not find a reason of its own to block the release of the records. However, it noted “that John Does may have other interests to pursue before the court,” according to a response written on behalf of the Sheriff’s office by the Prosecutor’s office.
“The county has no dog in this fight,” Cowlitz County Prosecutor Ryan Jurvakainen said Sept. 20. “This is between (those seeking injunctions) and the courts.”